Catherine O’Hara has been on the scene since 1974 -- no, really. The actress is a Second City alum, joining the improv troupe’s Toronto location as understudy for Gilda Radner. O’Hara got a bigger spotlight when The Second City created “Second City TV,” where she had a regular role and eventually added “writer” to her resume, allowing the growth of the fine-tuned comedic tendencies (and the acceptance of a few Emmys) that have driven her work since.
A gaggle of television gigs and standout movie roles later (you’ll remember “Coming Up Rosie,” “Beetlejuice” and the “Home Alone” films) and a whole new generation of fans (thanks to the show’s stick landing on Netflix) are bowing down before O’Hara -- or, at least, before Moira Rose.
The matriarch of the Rose family from “Schitt’s Creek,” the Eugene- and Dan Levy-led sitcom about a well-to-do family financially thrown on their *sses, Moira is, in an appropriate word, ridiculous. Haughty, anti-maternal and seemingly unaware of just how pretentious she is, Moira nevertheless has wormed her way into our hearts (and her pronunciation of “baby” into our heads).
You can’t put a finger on her cadence (“I explain the voice as souvenirs from all my world travel. I’ve taken a bit of all the people I’ve met in the world and I’m sharing it with you,” she told Vulture) and highbrow vocabulary, and her outfits -- the wigs especially, which O’Hara revealed were her own idea -- toe the line of garish, but there’s somehow a sliver of relatability in the essence of Moira.
The Levys, speaking to their talent, have created a warmth in the Rose family that grows on you, with Moira especially displaying only rare moments of empathy and self-awareness that still manage to resonate.
Moira’s life, after all, doesn’t not reflect O’Hara’s own: As an actress mother to two kids in their 20s, O’Hara can relate to Moira’s disconnect with her children. “I’m always wondering where my kids are,” she said to TIME. “It’s a pretty precious thing to be with your grown children this much time in the day and to see their lives and to see them learning and growing up as adults,” she also said of Moira to Entertainment Weekly.
The overdoneness of Moira’s look and diction, then, O’Hara says, is the only way Moira knows how be: “It’s strong and it’s armor, which is perfect when you’ve had your life ripped out from under you, like Moira, and you’re in this place that’s like the town you got out of earlier in life,” she said to the New Yorker.
O’Hara’s ability to portray a character that is at once aloof and humane is what’s catapulted the 65-year-old to sitcom royalty.
“I think there’s a lot of...insecure delusional. And I say this a lot, but I love playing people who have no real sense of the impression they’re making on anyone else,” she told Vulture.
O’Hara recently took home the award for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy at the Canadian Screen Awards (which she’s won every year since 2015), and her acceptance speech could not have been further from how Moira would have given it --there’s the proof of her acting chops right there.
The recognition that Moira has given O’Hara isn’t lost on her. Rather, the actress sees Moira as a conceptualization of privilege that not only heightens her own awareness, but makes her more sympathetic.
“Maybe I’m just trying to get it out of my system. I’m so afraid to be like that,” she said.
In every discussion of her character, O’Hara insists that she’ll defend the woman for all that she is, the absurdity be what it may. After all, what would you do were your cosmopolitan lifestyle flipped on its head?
“She’s like a baby: She has all the potential in the world, if she’s just given the opportunities. And so in that way, she’s tragic,” she said. “You know, people will say something about Moira being awful or mean, but I’ll defend her to the death, because you have to.”
That aspect is what allows her to step into a role that’s -- let’s call it is how it is -- probably verifiably insane.
“I love that we’re all kind of delusional and we have really no idea of what impression we’re making on others,” she said. “I love playing people who are living that to that degree, and Moira believes she’s a people person and she’s making the best of [a] bad situation.”
What O’Hara has brought to Moira, and what Moira has brought to television, is this character that, off the bat, we’re inclined to scoff at. The ostentatious woman had everything, after all, and we at first indulge in the schadenfreude that’s expected after an initial watch of “Schitt’s Creek.” We see Moira bend and grow, and even if she never completely becomes a character we’d call a role model, you gain a certain respect for her: She’s just trying to live her life the way she knows how, and doesn’t once let her steam or passion slip -- even if it may be misplaced at times.
Whatever Moira has become to O’Hara, her goals have always been the same: To never play the same person over and over again, to keep things interesting and to reject the notion that we should take life too seriously.
“It’s all laughing at ourselves. Not just others, but ourselves. Just behavior that human beings can’t help,” she said. “We are ridiculous and great and lovely and sweet and innocent and scary.” Brava.